The court ruled that international rules on air travel – the Montreal Convention – take precedence during flights over UK and European Union regulations on accessibility and discrimination.
The ruling means that disabled people will not be able to claim compensation from an airline if they face discrimination during a flight.
The case concerned Christopher Stott, who had booked a return flight with Thomas Cook to the Greek island of Zante for himself and his wife – his carer – in September 2008.
Stott, a wheelchair-user, had been promised a seat next to his wife, but she was given a seat behind him for the flight home, which lasted more than three hours.
While boarding the flight, Stott’s wheelchair overturned and he fell to the cabin floor.
Because he is paralysed from the shoulders down, he was unable to get himself up, but staff appeared not to know what to do, leaving him “extremely embarrassed, humiliated and angry”.
During the flight, his wife had to kneel in the aisle next to her husband to provide him with personal care, obstructing the cabin crew and other passengers.
But the cabin crew made no attempt to ask other passengers to move so that the couple could sit together, or to ease their difficulties in any way.
But even though the court ruled that discrimination had taken place, the five justices all agreed that damages for injury to feelings could not be awarded to Stott because such discrimination was not covered by the Montreal Convention, which only allowed compensation for death or bodily injury.
The five justices agreed that Stott had been treated by Thomas Cook in a “humiliating and disgraceful manner”, and that there was “much to be said for the argument that it is time for the Montreal Convention to be amended to take account of the development of equality rights”.
Baroness Hale, one of the five said: “Mr and Mrs Stott have both been treated disgracefully by Thomas Cook and it is hardly less disgraceful that… the law gives them no redress against the airline.
“Small comfort though it may be to them, both Mr and Mrs Stott… have done us all a service by exposing a grave injustice to which the international community should now be turning its attention.”
Andy Wright, managing director of Accessible Travel and Leisure, who frequently travels by air in a wheelchair, said he had “naively” felt the case could have been “a turning point for the rights of disabled people and for those who have suffered, and are still suffering, indignity and humiliation at the hands of insensitive airlines”.
He said: “The very fact that the Montreal Convention still takes precedence over and above existing UK and European legislation, much of which is supposed to improve and encourage travellers who have a disability to fly with confidence, only goes to show how woefully deficient – in terms of protecting the rights of disabled travellers – the current European legislation is.”
He called for “stricter and enforceable legislation that would make airlines far more accountable for their actions”, similar to laws in the USA.
Until that happens, he said, it was “imperative” that airlines reviewed their policies and procedures, and particularly their training.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which supported Stott’s case, agreed that it had “exposed a grave injustice”.
The commission said that countries that have signed up to the Montreal Convention should address that injustice, while it would itself “now be considering what further action it might take towards this end”.
13 March 2014